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It’s time to reconsider minority party representation in the House of Lords

4 min read

There will only be fair play for smaller parties and the four nations when Westminster has an elected second chamber

In May’s Queen’s Speech debate, I hinted that this might be my last full session in the Lords. I generated the intended reaction in Wales – and hopefully at Westminster.

When I entered the Lords in 2011, “for how long?” didn’t apply. One left the House “feet first”. I accepted the life sentence – but didn’t foresee participating beyond age 80, which (God willing) occurs next April. 

The Lords Reform Act 2014 subsequently enabled peers to retire, and more than 100 did so by 2020. Such a decision is usually for personal and family reasons; those with political affiliations will inform their party group. For smaller parties it’s somewhat different: one member retiring undermines their capacity to contribute. 

For Plaid Cymru, the implications are far-reaching, challenging the party’s very engagement with the second chamber.

The issue of peerages never arose during Plaid’s first 50 years. Members assumed we would never enter an unelected chamber based on privilege. But the issue arose in 1979, when Gwynfor Evans lost Carmarthen. Government whips asked whether he might consider a peerage. When I phoned him, Gwynfor responded quite icily: “There’s only one Lord – and He doesn’t inhabit a Thames-side palace!”

I’ve been treated absolutely fairly; my party hasn’t

Dafydd Elis-Thomas retired as an MP in 1992 and was offered a crossbench peerage, which didn’t involve Plaid Cymru changing its stance. He played a valuable role until 1999, when elected to Wales’ national assembly – where he served, with distinction, as presiding officer.

So, what triggered Plaid’s subsequent mind-change about Lords membership? The Government of Wales Act 2006 enabled the assembly – at last – to legislate for devolved matters. However, new Welsh laws could only be enacted if agreed, by order, by both Westminster Houses. Unelected Lords could veto legislation proposed by Wales’ elected government.

This caused a huge furore. Plaid’s parliamentary leader, Elfyn Llwyd, asked Labour government whips about facilitating Plaid representatives in the Lords to address such matters. If Plaid submitted nominations, it could expect three seats, he was told. 

In November 2006 Plaid’s national council accepted the offer and organised internal elections. Three members – Eurfyl ap Gwilym, Janet Davies and I – were successful. Our names were submitted, expecting early ratification. 

However, Gordon Brown then replaced Tony Blair and had little intention of fulfilling his party’s undertaking. We were later told that “over his dead body” would any nationalist be appointed to the Lords. He kept his word. For three years, we endured suspended animation. It was an invidious and frustrating situation.

After David Cameron’s election in 2010, some progress was made. He ratified my nomination – which I accepted, on the basis that further Plaid appointments would follow “in due course”. They didn’t, despite many assurances! This shabby experience illustrates how United Kingdom governments wield power. 

Soothing words about minority party voices in the Lords are undermined by Plaid’s experience. When I accepted the nomination, SNP colleagues taunted me: “Surely, you don’t trust them?”. The SNP was right. 

The reason I flagged up my intentions prior to retiring is to give the government time to consider small-party representation in the Lords. It also allows Plaid to revisit, if it so wishes, the resolution of 2006 of nominating members for the Lords. That decision could go either way.

I believe that only when Westminster has an elected second chamber will there be fair play for smaller parties and the four nations.

My experience in the Lords has been positive – it’s provided a platform for raising issues relevant to Wales. I’ve been treated absolutely fairly; my party hasn’t. Others must decide whether Westminster’s second chamber should systematically welcome diverse voices. The jury is out – and the clock is ticking.

Lord Wigley is a Plaid Cymru peer

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